IIHF Hall of Famer Hayley Wickenheiser: Women's players must stand up for what they want

Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Hayley Wickenheiser , who retired in 2017 as the all-time leader in Olympic and women's world championship scoring, believes the NWHL is holding the game back. "I think it's time to just step aside and let the right people do it."

Hayley Wickenheiser became the ninth women's hockey player inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame during the men's world championship in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Sunday. The 40-year-old Canadian legend, who is the all-time leader in both Olympic and women's world championship scoring, has barely slowed down since officially retiring in 2017.

Wickenheiser, a two-time Olympic MVP and current IOC member, is staying on top of the dramatic offseason developments in women's hockey. That includes the dissolution of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), the launch of the #FortheGame movement with a boycott of the U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), and the formation of a new Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association. The Toronto Maple Leafs' assistant director of player development, who also attends medical school at the University of Calgary, spoke out after her induction.

espnW: How does it feel to be inducted?

Hayley Wickenheiser: I feel like hockey has really enriched my life, not just on the ice, but with all the experiences I've had as a person away from the game. It's a great honor to be inducted. I'm really grateful to be Canadian and to grow up in a country that values women in sport, where a little girl can walk into a rink anywhere with a hockey bag and a hockey stick and no one's going to look twice.

espnW: How did you feel when the CWHL folded this spring?

HW: I felt for all the builders of the game, the people that put in their heart and soul, people like Sami Jo Small who initially started that league. I think the Canadian Women's Hockey League has tried to do the right thing for the women's game for a long time. Unfortunately, just the resources and making it sustainable, it just wasn't meant to be. So I feel like it's something that everyone should be proud of, what they accomplished. It really will be the launching point to the next good thing that'll come for the women's game. So, mixed emotions. I wasn't surprised. I think it was what has to happen to move it forward.

espnW: Thoughts on the NWHL's plans to continue this season?

HW: I'm not surprised. I just think it's really holding the game back. I think it's time to just step aside and let the right people do it, who can actually do it. But that's going to happen inevitably, whether they would like to proceed or not. If the NHL wants to, they'll be able to do it well. And I know the players want that as well. That's what they're going to force to make happen.

espnW: In 2017, the U.S. women's national team said it would boycott the women's worlds unless it got equitable treatment from USA Hockey. It worked. Do the #FortheGame participants have the same kind of leverage?

HW: I think the players are very powerful, and because it's not just Canada or the U.S., it's all the players in those countries but also around the world. At the end of the day, professional women's hockey will be for the best 150 players in the world. Those are the players that need to stand up and speak for what they want in the game. So it's good that they have a union in place, and they can ask for what they want and negotiate moving forward. That's the only way the game is going to move to the next level.

espnW: What would a WNHL look like?

HW: I think we have to look at an Eastern-based, six-team league. I live in Western Canada and I'd love a Western team, of course. But maybe logistics and costs won't allow that. So we have to be realistic. Six teams, I think, is the maximum amount of teams we could have for really good professional women's hockey. You start small. You maybe play in junior-sized arenas to grow, and you partner with NHL teams. You do it the right way, try to get close to breaking even for the first few years of the league, and then grow it from there. I think the NHL has learned lessons from the WNBA and other women's professional leagues. There's an appetite for women's sport. It just has to be done properly.

espnW: And the salaries?

HW: No idea, but they won't be very high, I can imagine. First you have to prove that you can actually make money at the sport. I think they should be wherever they deserve to be once the market is set and once there is actually a league.

espnW: The NHL chose not to send its players to the Olympics in South Korea. Are you confident a NHL-backed women's league would take breaks for the Olympics and women's worlds?

Mikko Stig/Lehtikuva via AP

Finland captain Jenni Hiirikoski (6) leads her players as they congratulate U.S. players following a loss in the women's hockey worlds final after a controversial call cost them the title.

HW: For sure. I think women's hockey has a history where the Olympic Games has been our Stanley Cup. I think it'll still be the pinnacle, because we can't forget the world. If we want women's hockey to still grow and be successful, it can't just be focused on Canada and the U.S. We need Sweden, Finland, Germany, Russia, the real powerhouses of the world of hockey and the best players in those countries to get the chance to play in a pro league. So of course there has to be international breaks. I don't see that changing.

espnW: Finland hosted the women's worlds in April. What did you think about the Finns beating Canada for the first time ever in a semifinal and then losing the gold medal to the U.S. after a video review controversially disallowed Petra Nieminen's overtime goal?

HW: It was great for the game. I think the Finns were absolutely robbed in the final. That was a goal! And I feel for them, because they deserved to win, and it would have been a great moment for women's hockey to have Finland come out on top at the world championship. But I think anybody that knows hockey that watched that game knows they could walk away proudly that they're "asterisk world champions"! For such a small country -- I played and lived there for a number of years -- I was actually very proud of seeing what has happened and the work and effort that they've put into growing the women's game. It's really inspirational.

espnW: WickFest, your long-running female hockey festival, recently held events in Calgary and Surrey, British Columbia. What's next?

HW: We're going to be expanding hopefully to places like Halifax and Toronto, and continue to grow it across North America, maybe into locations in the U.S. as well. We've partnered with the NHL and the NHLPA, and they've been very supportive in helping us work toward doing that. We've worked with over 30,000 girls and women in Canada over the last nine years.

espnW: And how are your medical studies coming along?

HW: I've got one year left. I suppose I'm not that close! But I'm right in the middle of it. Emergency trauma is what I'd like to focus on and combine it with hockey for the future.

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